Lessons for Singapore in public order and trust from civil unrest around the world: Shanmugam

Officers reciting the National Pledge during the virtual Home Team National Day Observance Ceremony on July 29, 2020.
Officers reciting the National Pledge during the virtual Home Team National Day Observance Ceremony on July 29, 2020.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS

SINGAPORE - Civil unrest around the world in the past two years has provided two important lessons for Singapore in public order and trust, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Wednesday (July 29).

Citing the Hong Kong protests that have lasted since March last year, Mr Shanmugam said they demonstrated the importance of exercising the freedom of assembly responsibly.

While the protests initially started as an objection against a proposed extradition Bill, it later spiralled into a broader issue of "people versus the police", said Mr Shanmugam, who was speaking during a virtual Home Team National Day Observance Ceremony.

Apart from the social and economic reasons for the protracted protests, he said it was his view that allowing protests by default, with police only intervening when violence occurred, created an "impossible situation" for the police force, which was known as one of the finest in Asia.

"You have a large group of peaceful protesters - easy for a small group of instigators to infiltrate these mass or peaceful protests and orchestrate violence... and that puts the police in a very, very difficult situation," he added.

The situation in the financial hub was also worsened by biased media reporting by foreign and local media, which generally left out violent acts against the police and instead, focused on police responses, causing public sentiment to turn against the police, he said.

In comparison, in Singapore, protests may be held only at the Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park. This has allowed Singapore to preserve public order on the streets and avoid disrupting people's lives while still allowing expression of views in a public setting, he said.

The second lesson for Singapore, said Mr Shanmugam, is the importance of trust, which is hard-earned and precious for any law enforcement agency.

"Trust is built up when people see that the system is fair and it works for them - the social economic system," he added. "If people don't have trust in the entire system, then no amount of police enforcement action can bring order to a society. Because the public has lost trust in the entire system, so why should they follow the rules?"

 
 
 

This can be seen in the United States, where the Black Lives Matter movement is a wider manifestation of distrust of the police after years of "perceived institutionalised racism and brutality", said Mr Shanmugam.

In Singapore, however, the situation is different, with 90 per cent of Singaporeans expressing trust in the police in public perception surveys. Other Home Team agencies, including the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), Singapore Prison Service and Central Narcotics Bureau, also have "very high levels of trust" that have been earned over the years, he said.

But trust is easily lost, and maintaining it starts from the political level and down the line, to every Home Team officer, he added.

In his speech, Mr Shanmugam also acknowledged the Home Team's front-line efforts in the Government's Covid-19 response, in addition to its day-to-day responsibilities.

The ceremony recognised 168 Home Team officers, volunteers, organisations, team projects and operations, as well as members of the public for their contributions over the past year.

Among those who received the Minister for Home Affairs National Day Awards was 31-year-old Staff Sergeant (SSG) Muhd Khairul Anuar from SCDF, a Hazmat Specialist at Tuas Fire Station.

He joined the SCDF in 2012 after witnessing firefighters in action when he was 11 years old, and has attended to several major incidents including the oil tank fire in Jurong in April 2016, an oil storage tank fire in Pulau Busing in March 2018, and a chemical waste fire at 48 Tuas Crescent in December last year.